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Archaeology in Iceland: Recent Developments

Archaeology in Iceland: Recent Developments

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"Archaeology in Iceland: Recent Developments" by Erin-Lee Halstad McGuire appearing in Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, Vol.16, 2005-6
"Archaeology in Iceland: Recent Developments" by Erin-Lee Halstad McGuire appearing in Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, Vol.16, 2005-6

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Archaeology in Iceland: Recent Developments
ERIN-LEE HALSTAD MCGUIREABSTRACT: The recent archaeological emphasis on the study of settlementpatterns, landscape and palaeoenvironments has shaped and re-shaped ourunderstanding of the Viking settlement of Iceland. This paper reviews thedevelopmentsinIcelandicarchaeology,examiningboththeoreticalandpracticaladvances.Particularattentionispaidtonewideasintermsofsettlementpatternsand resource exploitation. Finally, some of the key studies of the ecologicalconsequences of the Norse
landnám
are presented.SU: L’accent récent des recherches archéologiques sur l’étude descongurations spatiales des colonies, de la géographie des sites ainsi que deséléments paléo-environnementaux nous mène à réexaminer et réévaluer nosconnaissancesacquisessurlacolonisationdel’IslandeparlesVikings.Cetarticlepasse en revue le développement de l’archéologie islandaise en examinant lesprogrès théoriques et pratiques en la matière. Une attention particulière estportée sur l’étude des congurations spatiales des colonies ainsi qu’uneconsidération des questions d’exploitation des ressources. Finalement, l’articleprésente un aperçu des études principales qui traitent des conséquencesécologiques du
landnám
islandais.
Erin-Lee Halstad McGuire is a doctoral student in the Department of Archaeology, University of Glasgow.
VOLUME 16SCANDINAVIAN-CANADIAN STUDIES2005-2006ÉTUDES SCANDINAVES AU CANADA
 
I
celandic archaeology is a dramatically different eld than it used to be.Throughtheyearsit hasbeensubjectto thesamesortsof theoreticalandpractical trends seen throughout medieval archaeology. In the earliestyearsofwork,Icelandicarchaeologistsusedtheirexcavationstoillustratethe sagas, and as a means to ll in gaps in the story. It was exciting to look at theemerging settlements and try to match the colourful saga heroes with the farmsthey established and lived on. Later years saw a shift away from thecultural-historic mode, drawing more on the scientic methods of processualarchaeology. Archaeological dating methods, including tephrochronology andradio carbon, were seen as a way to scientically date historical events like the
landnám
, potentially conrming or disproving the veracity of historical sources.Issues of chronology have persisted, for example, with regard to the reliabilityofdatingmethods(Vilhlmsson),andtoaproposed,butcontested,pre-
landnám
occupation of Iceland (Hermanns-Auðardóttir).Up until very recently, archaeologists focused on the questions of “whosettledwhere?”and“whendidtheyarrive?”Whiletheanswerstothelatterseemfairly certain in light of recent developments in dating techniques (Vésteinsson1998 3), it may be impossible to answer the former with any conviction. Thecurrent direction in Icelandic archaeology has been a shift to new types of questions. Instead of focusing on the chronological development of a farm, or atypology of buildings and artefacts, archaeologists are turning their attention tothesettlementprocesses,andtheirimpactonsocietyandtheenvironment(Smith319). Recent excavations have led to a number of signicant changes in the waywe understand the
landnám
period. This paper aims to critically reviewdevelopmentsinthefollowingthreetrends:(1)newtheoriesregardingsettlementpatterns; (2) deeper insights into Norse resource exploitation and land-use; and(3)betterunderstandingoftheecologicalconsequencesofNorselandandresourcemanagement strategies.
Settlement patterns
In the early days of saga studies and Icelandic archaeology the
Landnámabók
andtheIcelandicsagasservedasguidestosites.Usingplacenamesandtopographicalstudies as aids to their work, archaeologists sought to match farmsteads withplaces and people mentioned in the sources. While this led to the discovery of manysites,recentsurveyworkhasshownthatthehistoricalsourcesonlymentiona small portion of the actual sites settled by the Norse. One example of an areaignored in the sagas is the Mývatn region (Mývatnssveit), in the northeast of Iceland, which appears to have been very densely settled.
 
It is generally accepted that the rst settlers chose sites located along thecoasts (Smith 320; Vésteinsson 2000 165; 1998 7); however a recent collaborativestudy, includingOrriVésteinsson,hassuggestedthatsomeinlandsiteswerealsosettledearlierthanpreviouslysuspected(McGovern200745).Thewrittensourcestell us that the Vikings settled where their high-seat pillars came ashore,establishing large claims and distributing land to their own followers.
1
Palynological studies cited by both Kevin Smith in 1994 and Vésteinsson in 1998and 2000 have indicated that in the ninth century, lowland Iceland was coveredwithwoodlandsdominatedbybirchandconsiderableundergrowth(thishasbeenrecently questioned by Erlendsson et al.). Wetland regions along the coasts andrivers interrupted these expanses of forest. Dwarf birch and scrubby grassescharacterisedthehighlandareaofIceland,whichlikelywouldhavebeenaccessibleonly by means of the rivers. This meant that, on arrival, the coasts, estuariesandsome of the river valleys would have provided practical locations for quicksettlement.Thesewetlandareaswouldhaveofferednotonlyopenspaceforhouseconstruction,butalsowinterfodderfortheNorsemen’scattle(Vésteinsson19987-8). An example of this might be the farm at Dalur, in South Iceland. Recentstudies have suggested that the environment at the time the Norse arrived wasdominatedby wet meadows and grasslands, and would not have needed clearing(Mairs 370). The authors argue that the farm was successful, not only becausethere was no need to clear the land for farming, but also because the Norseexploited “a range of resources over a wide geographical area
‘buffering’ theenvironmental impacts” (Mairs 368).Recent geoarchaeological research in the south of Iceland has identiedregionswhichweresubjecttoperiodicglacialoutburstoods[jökulhlaups](SmithandDugmore).SmithandDugmoresuggestthatoodsca.700CEcreatedamosaiclandscape: those regions untouched by the ooding would have stable soils andlots of vegetation, while those that had been ooded would have thin soil layersand lighter plant growth (173). This would have resulted in fairly clear accessroutes from the coast into the interior and upper water-ways permittingsettlement inland in the early part of the
landnám
period (Smith and Dugmore173).InnorthernIceland,Mývatnssveit,mentionedabove,hascleararchaeologicalevidence of early
landnám
settlements, such as a farm at Sveigakot (Vésteinsson2001), and an iron-smelting site and farm at Hrísheimar (Edvardsson 2003) (seealso McGovern 2007 35). Although this region is considerably far inland, it isaccessiblefromthecoastbywaterways.McGovernetal.arguethatrecentresearchin Iceland, primarily conducted under the “Landscape of Settlement Project”
2
has made it necessary to reconsider the traditional account of the settlementprocess (2007 30). While the evidence clearly indicates that some inlandsettlements date to the early
landnám
period, it would be useful to consider howand why the settlements were established.
12 SCANDINAVIAN-CANADIAN STUDIES/ÉTUDES SCANDINAVES AU CANADA

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